I always knew that the patients in hospice would pass away. After all, that’s why they were admitted to the program. But it was still a shock to me when I heard that ‘Mabel’ died before I could visit her as I had planned to do the next day. I had realized from our last meeting that she was getting more and more sleepy, tired, and confused. I couldn’t wake her up, so I just sat there and held her hand, watching the shape of her sleeping. I thought that maybe, next time, I can bring her some textures so that she can at least feel if she can’t hear. I had put my teddy bear and a soft blanket on my bed to bring it to her, but that afternoon, I received the email from Marina telling her she had passed. The rain was drizzling around me, and I stood outside the van to my class at Bryn Mawr, wondering if I, who had only visited her three times really did give her something meaningful in the last moments of her life. Our encounter was such a small speck in the entirety of her time on earth. Was I able to help make her life worthwhile?
The first time I met ‘Mabel’, she held my hands and said, “Your hands are warm. They are made out of love.” I had thought about that many times after that. Even as she was falling asleep, I would still hold her hand, hoping that small warmth would convey the love within me. I think, however, in all realness, she was probably not conscious of my touch in her deep sleep. But what I knew was that I was aware of her warmth. I knew for sure the joy within me when she smiles, the pride when I discovered that she was Roman Catholic by observing her blessing herself, and the warmth of the companionship we shared.
I hope I had given her bits of myself that I brought with me into this experience. But I don’t need to hope, but know, that our encounter influenced me. My experiences with her reaffirmed my desire to be “a really weird doctor”, one who would challenge the often impersonal set-up of the current medical system, challenge the idea that doctors have no time to genuine build relationships. During my time with her, I was amazed by how much love she had to give me even when she was physically weak. She told me, “It is important to always remember to bless yourself.” And I think that doctors should also remember to do that and take care of themselves, and to allow themselves the “luxury” of sitting in with a patient, get to know them as a person, and allow themselves to be changed and taught by those they take care of. Caretaking is something that is built on a relationship. By focusing on these relationships, physicians are better able to understand patients as holistic persons and give them the care they need.
That day, as I was walking in the gentle rain, I thought about how miraculous our encounter was. I got to know her only a little bit, like sticking a finger into the water—there was so much depth that I had yet to explore. But I’m glad that I was able to meet her for that short time, because life’s beauty is most apparent when we are able to share our warmth with others, as she did with me.